Sidewalk Eyes

Anja wishes she could create change rather than giving it. Tell her how at [email protected].

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Last week I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that there is a proposal to outlaw urinating and defecating on the streets of the San Francisco. Is this sad because legislators think outlawing such a thing will solve the problem, or is it sad because of the mere fact that it is an issue?

Yet another homeless issue.

After only a few weeks in San Francisco I ran out of change. I somehow learned to see past the gray faces that had so haunted me when I first came to the city; the edges of my compassion had effectively been rounded off. In the beginning, their wretched, dirty silhouettes tormented me wherever I went. With an almost-physical pain, I forced a flickering glance to meet their sometimes-begging, sometimes-condemning eyes. Those early feelings of empathy faded faster than I am comfortable with.

I used to resent people for not reacting when stepping around the seemingly lifeless bodies scattered on the sidewalks; today I did it myself. Last year, 169 homeless men, women and children died on the streets of San Francisco. I can only wonder how long their bodies were lying around before someone is moved to react.

Having spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe during the region's economic revolution, I thought I was used to seeing poverty and homelessness on my own front porch-and I was. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the Bay Area: the shopping-cart culture, the "campsites" in Golden Gate Park, the creative cardboard signs asking for money. One guy offers free jokes outside Fat Slice Pizza in Berkeley; another asks for smiles at a bus stop in the Castro. A stone's throw away from one of the world's most renowned university campuses, I didn't expect to find the outstretched hands and begging faces of Telegraph Avenue. This close to the hype and glamour of Silicon Valley, I didn't expect to find the shabby streets of the Tenderloin.

Downtown San Francisco is a world of sharp contrasts. The homeless freeze between their blankets while the gold of the City Hall dome reflects in the empty beer-cans littered around them. Businessmen give their "regulars" a dollar on their way to work every morning. A sick reciprocity-the street bum gets a beer for breakfast and the businessman quenches his guilty conscience.

Gentrification runs amuck in the Mission: luxurious condos are built where low-income families used to live; Latino artists are thrown out of their high-ceiling lofts to make space for newly rich dot-commers. Even with the U.S. economy slowing down, housing prices never seem to cease their tireless climb upward. The ladder gets narrower the higher we climb. Everybody who falls off lands on the street.

You look at them with fear or disgust; women who smell of urine or men whose only joy is catcalling to the girls walking by; quiet old men with gray, bushy eyebrows and gutter punks with innumerable piercings. You pass them, every day, all day. Rarely do you take the time to stop the hurried pace of your meaningful life to reflect on this manifestation of social inequality that so stubbornly refuses to stop hitting you in the face.

On my way home from BART today, I saw one man vomiting in a telephone booth. I saw two prostitutes with bruised legs. I saw three unidentifiable individuals cuddled up in cardboard boxes outside a fancy Yoga place. On my way home from BART, twelve people asked me for money. Twelve pairs of exhausted eyes begging me for a few pennies of compassion. Even when I try, my eyes won't let me stop seeing them, and I can't make the eyes not seek out my glance. Because my eyes have a life of their own and sometimes they choose odd friends. They choose odd friends. In that three-second glance or the quick look of recognition, my eyes give them exactly what I think they want: to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be given an instant of dignity.

Sidewalk eyes are the windows to homeless' souls. Maybe we should take a moment and have look inside.


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